I sit in a 24 hour diner as I write this. It’s 2am, and this place is packed to the gullet with pre-drunks, post-drunks, rascally high schoolers, moony couples, and first shift insomniacs—a regular cross-section of America. A few hours ago I attended Garrison Keillor’s final Prairie Home Companion show at the Hollywood Bowl on the other side of Los Angeles.
I’ve thought a lot about Keillor’s life and legacy over the last few weeks. I wrote a piece for The Atlantic’s online culture section about Keillor’s unique ability to speak fluently to both sides of our political divide. My editors there were fantastic, bringing the essay to life and helping me curtail my naturally discursive wanderings. The whole experience was wonderful, and a big deal for me personally. One thing that didn’t make it into the article though, was my personal connection to Keillor’s life and art—that’s what this post is about.
Since I’ve started working on an MFA in Creative Writing, I’ve found myself among plenty of intelligent, liberally-minded writer/artist types. These types take their art—and themselves—pretty seriously. In my experience, these folks—even the pledge-drive supporting NPR-lovers among them—tend to snarl at the mention of Keillor’s name. Their animosity is not entirely unjustified: he sings, he writes sentimental stories, he hails from the here-be-dragons coast-less portion of the map known as the Midwest from which thinkers and poets tend to flee as soon as they are old enough to jump the nest. Keillor is old, not cool Bernie old, but singing hymns from the platform old. They dismiss Keillor as quaint and old-fashioned, arguing the 74-year-old host has already overstayed his welcome with his expired aphorisms and saccharine Minnesota wholesomeness.
I don’t necessarily disagree with these points. Keillor may have progressive politics, but his show has consistently embraced conservative aesthetics. I don’t generally seek out A Prairie Home Companion-style entertainment for myself on a regular basis, but it still feels comfortingly familiar to me, like listening to the long-forgotten language of your ancestral home. And, take whatever you want from folk songs and stories about clumsy farmers, the guy has wit. I stand with Ira Glass on this.
My own route to writing and literature mimics Keillor’s in some ways. I grew up in a conservative family, like he did. A Prairie Home Companion passed the parental censor test. My home housed thousands of books, but Keillor was my first exposure to story telling—inflection, dramatic pause, witty asides. My own literary aspirations find their roots in this.
It is probably a kind of personal nostalgia that inspires me to pause and reflect on Keillor’s career as the end of an era. Though I loved the show as a child, it has been many years since I actually listened to an entire episode. Perhaps if I encountered Keillor’s stories today without their whiff of home and comfort, I might find them abrasive or constricting. Having spent my adulthood in Los Angeles, I find that my life has less and less in common with the innocent goings-on of a fictional town in rural Minnesota. For me, it represents the way things used to be, and for millions of people the way that things still are. Bachelor farmers still stare wordlessly out at their stubble-covered fields, cupping a telephone receiver to their ears. Town gossips congregate at myriad Sidetrack Taps and Chatterbox Cafes all over the country, just like the diner where I find myself tonight.
Director Robert Altman’s final film was about A Prairie Home Companion. It followed the quirky hijinks that take place back stage during the show at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown Saint Paul. The movie is a bit of a slog—despite the stellar cast—even for fans like myself. What’s interesting, though, is its preoccupation with death. Filmed ten years ago, the movie centers around A Prairie Home Companion’s final episode, where an angel of death wafts through the theatre taking aging actors, the entire program, and even the host himself into the great beyond. Keillor has clearly seen tonight’s final show coming for a long time.
In the film there is a protracted discussion about whether or not Keillor will cry during the final episode, and how much time should be spent on himself and his legacy. At the Hollywood Bowl a few hours ago, I must say that he acquitted himself admirably on both counts. He did dash away a tear or two as a cast member mentioned how much she would miss him, an appropriately discreet public display of emotion for the reserved former-Lutheran. He quickly retorted, “I’m going to miss president Obama, that’s who I’m going to miss.” He led the audience in a long medley of goodbye choruses, humorously transitioning from one to the next. He took his bows, he waved goodbye, he let us cheer for him. It was a satisfying end to a forty-two year career.
As to his legacy? Keillor quipped that a radio legacy is about as lasting “as a sandcastle.” But if I could be permitted a moment of sentimentality for myself here, I would counter that my own childhood, dotted with splashes of laughter, dancing, and inside jokes with my family inspired by his humor, music, and wit, is a pretty rich legacy so far as I am concerned personally. My tastes may change, but my memories won’t.
A legacy of shared happiness is a rich one indeed, and one for which I will be forever grateful. So, thank you, Garrison Keillor. You’ve done well. On behalf of every two-bit cowboy, lonely P.I., and aspiring writer taking their seats in noisy diners across America tonight, thank you.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.